It was getting late, but the crowd at Cafe Nine was as dense as it had been a couple hours ago, still dancing and sweating to Tal National.
“One more?” guitarist Almeida shouted into the microphone. By then the audience could only respond with shouting.
Almeida beamed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “In Niger, we play for five hours.”
Tuesday night marked Tal National’s return to New Haven after a 2015 show at Cafe Nine, and it seemed the crowd was even bigger the second time around — as if many had returned, and a few had brought friends, making for a packed house that was eager to move from the moment everyone arrived.
The room was already full for Wet Tuna, a Vermont-based trio of Matt Valentine on vocals and guitar, Pat Gubler on guitar, and John Moloney on drums, joined by New Haven-based musicians Rick Omonte on bass and Ross Menze on a second drum kit. Together the quintet churned out the drone, with Valentine moving between sparse lyrics and long guitar solos as the two drummers laid out spacious rhythms.
But the energy level rose perceptibly as soon as Tal National drummer Abdoulaye seated himself behind the kit, picked up two actual sticks he’d brought with him from Niger, and began to play. What little space remained between the crowd and the stage closed as the other musicians — Almeida and Babaye on guitars, Issa on bass, and Souleymane on vocals — fell in one by one for Tal National’s first number. By the end of it, all the band members were smiling at one another, warmed up and ready to go.
“Now dance!” Almeida cried out at the end of the band’s third song. The audience didn’t need to be told again. In the packed space, everyone began to sway. The stage was illuminated by lights from phones as people held them up to take videos. The band heated up, playing each song longer, the rhythms becoming deeper and tighter. The few people who weren’t moving just stood there with small smiles on their faces, as if mesmerized.
“You want more?” Almeida shouted to the crowd.
“10 more!” someone shouted back.
What followed was a scorching show that mixed world-class musicianship and showmanship. A song that, Almeida explained, involved a prayer for rain during the dry season brought Souleymane off the stage into the crowd to dance and sing. The room rose several degrees, and Almeida took off one of the shirts he was wearing.
“Now we’ll do some rock ‘n’ roll,” he said.
“About time!” someone in the crowd said, to laughs.
But Almeida wasn’t kidding. The next song was a vehicle for him to dig into his guitar and pull out a dirty sound that enthralled the crowd. He switched between shredding and egging the crowd on, and then joined the band for a quick dance while each member continued to play, before Almeida leaped into the audience and back out again.
Somewhere during the next song the band played, I forgot to keep doing my job. I turned off the camera and closed my eyes, let each instrument enter my ears, enter my brain. By this time everyone was clapping to the beat as Almeida had asked, and under everyone’s feet the floor had become a drum. It was impossible not to dance, and I gave myself over completely. For a while, I’m not sure how long, there was only the sounds of those two guitars, that bass, and those drums, weaving around each other, making rhythms and melodies so beautiful that there wasn’t room for anything else. Only the end of the song startled me out of my trance.
“We did Side 1,” Almeida said. “How about Side 2?”
Everyone just cheered. The music deepened, Splinters of wood flew off Abdoulaye’s sticks under the force of his drumming. It was then that a few people might have noticed that Abdoulaye was in fact on his fourth or fifth set of sticks for the evening. The shattered remnants of the sticks he’d worn out lay scattered at his feet. Almeida picked them up and handed them out as souvenirs to the audience.
Almeida told the crowd their U.S. tour involved 21 shows. How many sticks did we think Abdoulaye had brought from Niger?
“Five!” someone shouted. “Seven!” shouted another. “37!” “1,000!” “A million!”
Almeida smiled. “You are trying to steal my show,” he said. “He brought a continent of sticks. Thousands and thousands!”
Abdoulaye already had a new set in hand.
“One more?” Almeida said. The crowd roared. The band’s last songs involved each member taking a turn dancing while playing; audience members being invited up to dance on stage with them; and at last, Almeida taking the floor tom from the drum set and carrying it into the crowd, with Abdoulaye following behind and still playing it. The pair traveled all the way to the back of the club while the band kept going from the stage. They returned and finished in an explosion of energy. The band took a bow. This time it was people in the audience who shouted “one more!”
Almeida reminded the audience that the band had albums for sale, including its latest, Tantabara, which it was touring to support. If we bought a copy, we could take their music home.
Music that was “so blue, and so happy,” he said.